The year in Eagle County news: Progress on housing, transportation, a new national monument and ongoing friction between Vail and Vail Resorts
After two years dominated by pandemic headlines, 2022 was a year where COVID-19 took a step back from center stage. The fights over facial coverings and public health orders, so charged in 2020 and 2021, faded into the background as life mostly returned to pre-pandemic normalcy at local schools, local ski resorts and at favorite restaurants and gathering spots.
We still found plenty of other things to argue about. At the top of that list was the ongoing fight over Booth Heights, the controversial parcel of land in East Vail that has pitted Vail Resorts against the town that bears its name. Outside of election season, nothing generated more letters to the editor.
It’s a dispute that intertwines so many pressing issues in the new West — housing for workers, declining wildlife populations, and responsible development — which is why, for better or worse, it has been framed as a question over what’s more valued in Vail: Local workers or local sheep? That argument begs for more nuance, but whatever side you’re on, the only certainly is that the story that will continue into the new year, with the fate of the contested parcel in the hands of a district court judge.
It was also a year marked by a bruising election season in which soft-side statewide groups poured money into local statehouse races. Attack ad mailers filled up mailboxes, while the airwaves were full of negative campaigning. In the end, voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats — mirroring a statewide trend, despite the president’s low approval ratings — while also punching the ticket on a new regional transportation authority.
There was also so much to celebrate. A new national momument at Camp Hale, the product of more than a decade of work by Colorado leaders and stakeholders to protect the land surrounding the former training site for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, was dedicated by President Joe Biden in October. Air Force One touched down at the local airport and Biden’s motorcade made its way up the valley, which included wild scenes of the president’s armored limo speeding through tiny Minturn.
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Vail Mountain also embarked on its 60th season in style, with retro touches all over — from its vintage logo to ice bars paying homage to the resort’s past — while snow piled up across the valley. The final days of the year were marked by fresh powder turns, dicey roads and a remarkable three straight World Cup wins from local skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, ending her topsy-turvy 2022 looking more dominant than ever.
Here’s a look back at the year that was, or at least what made the front pages of the Vail Daily during a busy year for our newsroom as we tried to stay on top of all the essential stories in the valley for you, our loyal readers. And here’s to a safe and healthy 2023.
— Nate Peterson
Vail’s never-ending story: Booth Heights
If there’s any topic that dominated local headlines this year, it’s the ongoing saga over a 23-acre parcel of land in East Vail known locally as Booth Heights. Tensions between Vail Resorts and the town from which it gets its name reached a new crescendo in 2022. At the center of the strain? Desperately-needed employee housing and a beloved herd of endemic bighorn sheep.
The latest round of feuding between Vail Resorts and the town ramped up again in April when the resort company announced its $17 million plans to move forward with bringing employee housing to the parcel. Just weeks later, the Vail Town Council voted to begin the process of condemning the parcel, a vote which was finalized on May 4 in front of a crowded room of Vail Resorts representatives and community members.
For those in favor of condemnation, at the center of the debate is the herd of bighorn sheep that have used the land for centuries as critical winter habitat.
In the months that followed, Vail Resorts and the town went back and forth in numerous letters, with the town offering up housing alternatives to the East Vail land, the resort company holding firm on its desire to build there, and the town urging Vail Resorts to change its mind. And so it went.
With little resolution between the two parties, the relationship took another turn in September when Vail Resorts filed a complaint against the town in district court. The complaint alleged that the town misused an emergency ordinance to ban new permits for the project.
With no resolution in sight between the town and the ski resort operator, the ultimate fate of the controversial piece of land will likely be decided in district court in 2023.
Outside of the fight over Booth Heights, the town maintained its focus on housing, tackling the regional crisis from all angles.
This included ongoing efforts to buy up properties and place deed restrictions on them, chipping away at the town’s goal to acquire 1,000 additional deed-restricted properties by 2027.
However, the town also eyed new development and redevelopment to bring new housing units to the community. This year, Vail continued construction on the Residences at Main Vail (which will bring 72 units), began plans to redevelop Timber Ridge (which could bring around 200 units) and approved zoning changes to potentially bring employee housing to West Middle Creek.
It also got creative in looking for potential locations and partnerships to add housing. In November, it sent a letter to the United States Postal Service to start a conversation on whether the current post office’s location could better serve the community’s housing needs. It also followed the suit of the Eagle County School District and sent an email to its short-term rental license holders in December to consider instead renting their property to local employees.
Plus, taking a similar approach to other Colorado Mountain communities, Vail passed new short-term rental regulations in June.
As Vail looks toward the future, there are undoubted challenges ahead. For residents, a biennial community survey showed their desire for the town to not only strengthen its relationship with Vail Resorts and address the housing crisis but also to solve parking issues and take actions to protect the environment (including wildlife habitat and the Gore Creek).
This year, the town took some bold steps toward what the future could look like.
This includes new leadership in the town. After Town Manager Scott Robson resigned in April to take a similar role in Telluride, Stan Zemler, the former town manager, stepped into the role on an interim basis. He was replaced in November by Russ Forrest, who has plenty of prior experience working for the town.
Those steps forward also include an innovative approach to strengthening and balancing the relationship between the town’s community, environment and economy. In February, Vail kicked off its process to create a Destination Stewardship Plan. Throughout the year, community members and stakeholders provided feedback on the plan, which has just begun to come before Town Council this December.
— Ali Longwell
A monumental visit from the president
The biggest news item of the year was the designation of Camp Hale as a national monument in October, and the corresponding visit to Eagle County by President Joe Biden.
An acting president hasn’t visited Eagle County for purposes other than vacationing since the days of President Gerald R. Ford planning his re-election campaign in Vail, and circumstances surrounding Camp Hale had all the gravity of a massive event. A perfect setting could have been made out of the nearby Nova Guides business, but the president insisted on it taking place on federal lands. Camp Hale was once again returned to a high security environment as Biden gave his speech.
“It’s the first new national monument of my presidency under this authority,” Biden said. “When you think about the natural beauty of Colorado and the history of our nation, you find it here.”
In his remarks, Biden also announced steps to conserve 225,000 acres of the Thompson Divide, an announcement that was met with loud applause and cheering from the gathered crowd.
“We’re standing with Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers who have forged generations to protect beautiful streams, aspen groves, and the Thompson Divide area,” Biden said. “Let me be clear, there’s no current or planned oil exploration production in the area. We’re just keeping things as they’ve been for a long time.” Along with Camp Hale, the Tenmile Range in Summit County was included in the designation, for a non-contiguous national monument totaling 53,804 acres. The Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument will be a U.S. Forest Service-managed monument, one of only 13 among the 130 national monuments in the U.S.
— John LaConte
Hard-won progress on housing
Eagle County is still critically short of both rental and entry-level for-sale housing. But there were some significant efforts in 2022.
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners recently approved funding for two projects in Eagle. A joint project between Habitat for Humanity and the Eagle County School District received a total county contribution of $3.28 million. The commissioners also voted to purchase 43 homes the first 76-unit phase of the Haymeadow project.
The purchase price of the 43 units is $26 million, but the ultimate subsidy will be about $6.88 million once all the deed-restricted units are sold.
As part of the package, Haymeadow developers have agreed to deed-restrict all 76 units in that phase of the project.
The county and Colorado Mountain College this year broke ground on a 72-unit apartment complex in Edwards. The county has provided funding for one of the two buildings at the site.
In Vail, construction continues on the 72-unit Residences at Main Vail apartment project. Those units are expected to be ready before the 2023-2024 ski season begins.
The Vail Town Council in December approved on first reading an ordinance that will rezone the West Middle Creek parcel for future housing and child care. That board has also made progress on redevelopment of the Timber Ridge apartments. That project, still being hashed out, would replace the 96 apartments at the complex.
In addition to those and other projects, local housing funding received a pair of boosts at the state level.
The Colorado Legislature in April passed a bill dedicating $178 million to affordable housing across the state. In addition, voters in November approved Proposition 123. That ballot issue sets aside nearly $300 million annually for for affordable housing.
Money from the measure comes from existing state sources, but could affect future refunds from the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, constitutional amendment.
— Scott Miller
A tale of two seasons at Vail
On Vail Mountain, the story of 2022 was the persistent staffing issues which presented challenges during the ski season of 2021-2022. By January, it was obvious that the mountain was running at levels which were reduced from the full service standard to which Vail visitors had grown accustomed.
2022 began with Vail Resorts financial analysts pointing out the diminished quality of the on-mountain experience, with one analyst even suggesting in January that the company would have to “bite the bullet and raise wages even higher in order to bring the quality of the product back to its historically excellent levels.“
An announcement from the company, saying wages would be increased to a minimum of $20 per hour for 2022-23, came in March. By summer, officials had stated that staffing was going well.
Construction on two new lifts on Vail Mountain also began in the summer, a project which dragged on into the winter, but was at least partially complete by the end of the year with the new Game Creek Express six-seat chair opening in December. At year’s end, guests weren’t yet treated to a new ride on the mountain’s all new Sun Down Express chairlift, however. The totally new lift line will have to wait until 2023 to see its first ride.
But that was about the only lift on Vail Mountain which wasn’t up and running by the end of 2022. The mountain made a statement in suggesting that it was fully staffed in December by opening both the Mongolia Poma and the Dawg Haus restaurant — both located in remote locations on the mountain, and both of which were not operational at all in the 2021-22 season. A good snow pattern resulting in 140 cumulative inches of snow in November and December helped, as well, to kick off a successful 60th season at the resort.
Elections bring improved transit, a wave of blue
Eagle County voters made some substantial decisions at the ballot box this year.
In November, voters approved the creation of the county’s first regional transportation authority, which will implement a new half-cent sales tax starting in January to fund public transit enhancements throughout the valley.
These enhancements include expanded service and frequency; free fare and frequent transit between ski resorts; the establishment of an Eagle-to-Gypsum route; first- and last-mile enhancements; enhanced service to Red Cliff and Minturn; and more.
The transit authority will not only reduce cost and increase convenience for riders, it will also help Eagle County make progress on its sustainability goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. Ground emissions from transportation account for more than a third of total emissions, and getting people out of their cars and into electric-powered public transportation will reduce this impact.
All municipalities except Gypsum approved the regional transportation authority, and each one will appoint a director to the authority’s board to start making progress on transit services in the new year.
Voters also approved a 2% lodging tax on short-term rentals to benefit the local workforce in unincorporated Eagle County and Gypsum. The 2% tax will apply to the price charged for leasing or renting a dwelling for a short-term period, defined as up to 30 days. The estimated $3 million in annual revenue from the tax will go towards supporting child care and affordable housing initiatives.
Other measures did not pass public judgment. In May, a ballot measure put forth by Mountain Recreation to fund upgrades to recreation centers was decisively voted down for the second time. Mountain Recreation asked voters in its district to approve of a property tax increase to fund around $40 million in facility upgrades at its locations in Eagle, Gypsum and Edwards.
The measure, with an ask of $60 million, was narrowly voted down in November 2021, with 51% of voters against. It was reintroduced in the spring at a lower price in hopes that more people would get on board. Instead, the opposite happened, and the measure was voted down 2,795 to 986.
“We’re disappointed that it didn’t pass but given the state of our economy, the things going on, it’s not shocking quite honestly,” Liz Jones, the Mountain Rec board president, told the Vail Daily in May. “Even though this didn’t pass, we’re still very proud of the services we do provide and the facilities will continue and will be there and will be a hub for anyone that wants them.”
When it came to local, regional and state-level candidates, Eagle County voters consistently voted for Democrats and for experienced leadership. All Democratic candidates on the ticket in Eagle County garnered at least 60% of the vote, and incumbent candidates were universally re-elected in all races except for House District 57, which includes portions of Eagle County, where Democrat Elizabeth Velasco unseated incumbent Perry Will.
Incumbent Sheriff James Van Beek was the sole Republican elected on the ticket in the partisan races. The sheriff’s race took an expected turn this fall, when Van Beek’s opponent Paul Agneberg, a first-time unaffiliated candidate, was arrested for outstanding warrants just minutes after getting off of the debate stage at the Eagle County government building. Agneberg was held in jail overnight for unpaid traffic tickets and lost the election, garnering only 25% of the vote.
The Town Council election for Avon was the only nonpartisan race on the ballot this year, and town voters similarly opted for experience, reseating both incumbents, a former mayor and a longtime local.
When it came to statewide ballot initiatives, Eagle County voters were in line with the majority of the state on all issues except Proposition 125, which allows grocery and convenience stores to sell wine. Up until now, retail of wine has been limited to liquor stores, and 55% of Eagle County voters were against expanding this right to grocers, seeing it as a threat to small local retailers. Statewide, the measure passed by a thin margin of 50.6%, driven primarily by voters in the Denver metro area.
The other two liquor-related measures — to allow the delivery of alcoholic beverages and to increase the number of liquor licenses a single business can hold — were voted down at the county and state level.
Other statewide measures that county voters supported are the legalization of natural medicine like psychedelic plants and fungi, the creation of a statewide fund for affordable housing, a state tax increase to support healthy meals for public school students and a reduction of the state income tax rate from 4.55% to 4.4%.
— Carolyn Paletta
A torrid real estate market cools off
At the beginning of 2021, a number of people in the local real estate business asked if the Vail Valley was capable of matching the 2020 record of $3 billion plus in sales. Then 2021 posted a new record of nearly $4.3 billion in sales.
As of Nov. 30, the dollar volume in 2022 seemed unlikely to match the pace set in 2021, in either units sold or the value of those sales. But this year is on pace to be the valley’s second-biggest sales volume year.
As of the end of November, that sales volume had just passed $3.4 billion in sales volume. But the number of units sold is far behind the pace set in 2020 and 2021.
That means fewer units are selling for more money in every part of the local market. That price inflation was complicated by increases in mortgage rates. That made 2022 perhaps the valley’s most difficult year for first-time buyers. Eagle County and other local governments are working to ease the transition from rental to ownership with programs that include Eagle County’s Bold Housing Moves.
Homes have also started to sit on the market a bit longer than they did a year ago, a dramatic change from the land rush of 2021, when homes went under contract in a matter of days, if not hours. Those contracts were often written for cash buyers, who waived inspections and appraisals.
While there are still plenty of cash buyers, those in the business say we’re approaching a more normal market, in that homes that are too aggressively priced will sit while those priced appropriately still move fairly quickly.
Price adjustments aren’t only in the realm of homes regular people might buy.
Casteel Creek, a 457-acre estate at the top of Lake Creek near Edwards, sold this year for $40 million. That’s an eye-popping number, but the property — which includes a home, an “entertainment venue,” a trail network and more, was originally listed for $78 million. The new owners also expect to sell up to eight homesites on the property for between $5.5 million and $7 million.
— Scott Miller
A challenging, rewarding year for local schools
For education, 2022 was a year filled with transitions, persistent obstacles and ultimately, successes.
At its removal, Eagle County School District shifted toward an endemic mindset, a move that would drive the district forward through the end of the school year and into the start of another, refocusing on the cracks, gaps and scars left by the past few years in education.
This included the persistence of mental health issues for students, with the local Healthy Kids Colorado Survey reporting an increase in stress, suicide attempts and depression. Those sobering revelations were combatted with the aid of local organizations, including the district increasing its financial support to Your Hope Center in order to bring school-based counselors to all its schools this year as well as a continued focus on social-emotional learning for students.
Academically, the district has reportedly seen students grow in the right direction, with spring 2021 CMAS scores showing a rebound to pre-pandemic levels in some subjects and widening opportunity gaps between different student demographics. In order to further its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the district began piloting a new standards-based grading effort this fall.
The year also saw the continued strain on educators, and not just locally, but across the country.
A 2022 Colorado Department of Education survey reported high volumes of teachers leaving the profession altogether. In Eagle County, the same survey identified that local educators’ largest challenges were with a lack of time and support for new staff.
Coming into the last months of the 2021-22 school year, the Eagle County School District and Education Association of Eagle County searched for ways to improve the quality of life for its teachers and increase salaries amid the national educator shortage.
As the teacher’s union pushed to get to a base salary of $50,000 for certified staff, the negotiations teams reached a number just below it. In May, the school board approved a 12.4% increase in compensation and certain working condition improvements.
By the time the 2022-23 school year started, the district was looking forward with optimism, even as it battled gaps in staffing, housing and student achievement. While staffing vacancies existed across the district — starting the school year with around 75 open positions — its exceptional student services, transportation and early childhood education departments were the hardest hit.
At the core of many of these challenges is Colorado’s formula for funding K-12 education, which consistently ranks the state in the bottom five states for per-pupil funding. Throughout the year, the district battled this flawed funding system to get the money it needs to address its top challenges. In the interim, however, it had to use creative methods of addressing challenges.
Take housing, for example. The district has long ranked housing as one of its top barriers to recruiting and retaining staff.
While it made some progress this year — breaking ground on an apartment complex in Edwards in March, continuing its partnership with Habitat for Humanity on a housing development in Eagle, and revisiting the opportunity at Maloit Park — it also took a less than traditional approach and made a plea to local homeowners. In a letter heard about around the state, Superintendent Philip Qualman asked for homeowners to offer housing opportunities for educators, a call which received a large response from the community.
Yet, still the year came with stories of success and joy.
In June, students received a visit from Sen. John Hickenlooper to hear about the district and its partners’ success with its career and college readiness programs. Vail Mountain School welcomed Steve Bileca as its new Head of School, ushering in a new chapter. Journalism students from Eagle Valley High School were featured on a National PBS NewsHour program. And Eagle Valley senior Victoria Aragon was named a 2022 Boettcher Scholar, becoming only the fifth student from the school ever and the first since the 1990s.
— Ali Longwell
Preserving history in Minturn
In Minturn, the addition of a new branch of government to the town, along with the creation of a historic register and the adoption of a new chapter of town code dominated much of 2022. The efforts all centered around historic preservation in town, and a Historic Preservation Commission was formed, with five locals appointed by the council. The first item that commission recommended for addition to the newly created historic register was the town’s iconic water tank, a 1940s era structure which overlooks the downtown area and bears the town’s name in a large, bold font.
Another significant achievement was attained in Minturn in 2022 when the town completed extensive negotiations with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle River Water Authority regarding Bolt’s Lake. Bolt’s Lake, now dry, was originally constructed in the Minturn area the 1890s for recreational boating and fishing. In the 1990s, however, the state deemed the dam unsafe and ordered it to be breached. The lake has been dry since then, but it has also, since then, been identified as an ideal place for a reservoir which could be much larger than the original lake at about 1,200 acre feet. The Minturn Town Council agreed to the deal in 2022; in exchange the town will receive water augmentation rights, and locals will have a new place to play. But if you’re hoping for ice skating in the wintertime, don’t count on it, said Mayor Earl Bidez.
“As an augmentation reservoir, they’ll constantly draw out water,” Bidez said. “And the winter, as the top of the lake freezes over, if they draw out water from underneath and the ice cracks, you’ve got quite a fall into some really freezing water,” Bidez said. The reservoir is expected to take up to 10 years to complete.
— John LaConte